Technically it's called a rope access technician.
Except that 'rope access technician' makes sense that to hardly anyone. It's also referred to as industrial climbing, industrial abseiling and high rope access.
I’ve embarked on a total career change which required wrapping up seven years of work into one paragraph on my CV. This blog is my chance to explain the rope access world in a bit more depth.
Rope access involves using a twin set of ropes to suspend a worker in place. The practical rope techniques are based on climbing and caving practices to protect a worker from falling.
Some of the highest incidences of injuries and fatalities in a workplace or at home are due to falls from height. We’ve come a long way from these sorts of practices (check this guy out below!). As thrilling as it looks, I definitely wouldn’t do it!
"So...what do you actually do?"
Rope access can involve painting, maintenance, cleaning, construction, inspection and surveying on work sites that include skyscrapers, wind turbines, oil rigs, mine sites, energy plants, domestic construction, sporting and entertainment events. I was fortunate to work in sunny Western Australia, in places that are ruggedly beautiful. The weather there is generally hot, or hot and humid. The work is physically demanding and most ropeys are on the fit side.
One of the most physically demanding yet fun jobs I worked on was on the construction of a gas plant on a desert island, 50km off the coast of Western Australia. For six months I worked the night shift in a team with three hilarious men, on roster of 26 days on and nine days off. The gas plant was built in modules in South Korea and then shipped to Australia.
Part of our job involved removing the various-sized pieces of shipping steel that had been put in place to keep the pipework secure during the ocean crossing. I thought it was a bonus that the shipping steel was all coloured bright pink. We set up ropes to climb up and position ourselves underneath a 3m diameter pipe to shift a 100kg steel plate separating the pipe from the concrete structure it was sitting on.
The reality of the task meant that we were hanging from a rope next to smooth concrete, with no ability to establish a foothold or gain leverage, swinging a sledge hammer to shift the plate inch by inch. It was a physical slog, but tell you what, it also felt amazing to use a sledge hammer like that, feeling strong and satisfied at the end of a shift. Another benefit is that you get to eat a lot of food, including at least one large block of chocolate every day, if that's your thing.
My favourite part of the job was being able to work offshore with a view of the beautiful Indian Ocean, watching whales and whale sharks cruise by. The downside was having to go away to to remote places to earn my keep, with limited contact with friends and family.
IRATA Level 3!
The Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) is the international body that provides guidelines and regulations for rope access technicians to follow. You can get your Level 1 ticket by taking a one-week course and passing a one-day assessment, after which you’re qualified to set up your own harness and work under supervision.
After at least one year and 1000 hours as a Level 1 ropey, you can go for your Level 2 course and assessment. A Level 2 ropey learns more complicated rescues, rigging, and hauling techniques. The same requirements apply before you can sit your Level 3, a minimum of one year and 1000 hours.
Trainers and assessors put you through your paces when you go for your Level 3 assessment. It’s a heady thing to be ultimately responsible for the safety of your crew, and culpable if anyone goes wrong. Going for my Level 3 was one of the toughest weeks ever, and passing the assessment was a massive achievement for me.
Safety Safety Safety
The hierarchy of levels in rope access is a great system as it teaches you to look out not only for yourself but for others. It’s vital to communicate and work well as a team, because if something goes wrong it is likely to be seriously bad. It’d be hard to justify lazy or shoddy work practices after an accident. It became really clear when I was a team leader how much people rely on each other for mental and technical preparation when they’re on the job.
Working at height, we also have to be hyper aware of the hazard of dropped objects to people outside of our work crew — the potential for serious injury to a person resulting from an item we drop is high. We're diligent about putting a lanyard on everything and ensuring barricades to areas below our work space.
The safety mindset is reinforced diligently on good worksites. It can seem like overkill to outsiders, but it's an important core principle to industrial companies. As cheesy as some of the slogans sound, after a while it’s hard to shake the safety thinking that gets drilled into you: ‘It’s always the right time to do the right thing’. Even cheesier is 'safety never sleeps!'. Word to the wise - avoid saying to people that in earnest!
One of these things is not like the others
"Morning lads! And lady..." - I heard that every day for two weeks straight on the job at one mine site. I like to laugh, but after a while that sort of casual sexism just isn't funny. The construction and resources industries have traditionally been male-dominated and often I was one of a few or the only woman on a job. A workmate mentioned to me that he noticed a difference for the better when there were women in the workplace, and I certainly had more fun when there were other women around.
I was explaining rope access recently to someone who remarked that the job sounded ‘man-heavy’. I'd never heard that expression and it made me laugh, but it’s important to consider why some industries are so women-light. I know the challenges of being the odd one out, but the positives of the experience outweighed the negatives. There are huge opportunities to be had and it's important we encourage people in their endeavours, especially as there is so much value in having diverse workplaces.
We can do better in encouraging young girls and women to approach working in any industry with a full belief in their own capabilities. Embrace mechanical advantage and learn to ask for help when needed, and anyone can work a physically demanding job.
"Everything is design. Everything!"
^ Thanks for that tie-in, Paul Rand 😉 ^
This brings me round to my approach to my new career in user experience design. Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Emer, the link seems tenuous’, and yes, I see your point. I gained invaluable experience in understanding the complexities of large-scale industrial design and their operations. I also learnt a tonne about was people, teamwork, thinking on my feet, strategy, communication, and the importance of having a problem-solving rather than a defeatist attitude.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like to check out my other endeavours, I’m working on projects that you can see in the portfolio on my website — www.emerboothman.com.
A great video to see what it's like building a gas plant on a desert island and the marvels of engineering: https://thewest.com.au/business/watch-chevrons-45b-wheatstone-project-take-shape-bc-5602275932001
If you're interested in getting into rope access yourself, consider getting your Level 1 IRATA ticket. For more information check the IRATA website: https://www.irata.org/